The promenade at Scarborough. A ghostly and malevolent female figure appears by the seafront, cloaked in a sari. The apparition of mysterious brine accompanies her presence and the art-deco seafront is covered in mysterious shells.
The BBC’s recent three-part supernatural drama, Remember Me? was screened in the run-up to Christmas 2014, thus linking it with the tradition of providing a ‘ghost story for Christmas’, which enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s under the stewardship of producer/director Lawrence Gordon-Clark. The title comes from the old English folk ballad, ‘Scarborough Fair’, which contains the line ‘remember me to the one who lives there, she once was a true love of mine’. In this mini-series, written by Gwyneth Hughes and directed by Ashley Pearce, Michael Palin stars as Tom Parfitt, a man whose recent arrival at a care home prefigures the mysterious death of one of the care workers and triggers an eerie mystery that draws in police detective Rob Fairholme (Mark Addy) and care worker Hannah Ward (Jodie Comer). It transpires that the ghost of his former nanny, Isha (Mayuri Boonham) an Indian woman who died after the ship that was taking her back to India was torpedoed off the coast of North Yorkshire during the First World War, has plagued Parfitt for years. She cannot let go of her former charge and brings a curse upon any person who is deemed to come between them.
The synchronicity between the malevolent spirit in this supernatural tale and the sea (and sea-sides) is suggestive of older antecedents in British culture. In particular, it has affinity with several supernatural tales, which imbricate the seaside as a space of death and disaster, as a sinister agency is unleashed from Britain’s past. Peter Hutchings famously wrote about the ‘uncanny landscapes’ of British film and television, whereby the bucolic landscapes so beloved of British natural identity conceal sinister forces below the surface, which wreak havoc on those who encounter or disturb them. Hutchings posits Quatermass as the archetypal example. Certainly 1970s British television was awash with programmes featuring such primal resurgence, including The Stone Tape (1972), Children of the Stones (1977) and Stigma (1977-a ‘Ghost story for Christmas’ entry) whilst dramas such as Robin Redbreast (1970) and Tarry Dan, Tarry Dan, Scary Spooky Old Man (1978) had much in common with British horror films of the time like The Wicker Man (1973) in which the continuance of ancient customs in remote areas of the British Isles elicited the terror of ancient pagan sacrifice in the modern, ‘ordered’ twentieth century. The spiritual cousin of these uncanny landscapes in British television are the haunted and isolated seascapes which invert Shakespeare’s ‘precious jewel set within a silver sea’ into cruel, dangerous and remote liminal spaces which hint at the fragility of the human condition in comparison to the cruel and arbitrary forces of both nature and history.
British gothic literature has a long association with the sea which positions the ocean and sea journeys as brooding and oppressive. It is a terrible, dark and destructive tempest in which Count Dracula is borne unto the shores of Whitby from the Black Sea in Bram Stoker’s novel. The count emerges from the terrible wreckage of the doomed ship in which the entire crew perish, in the form of a large dog. The ‘roaring and devouring’ sea, and seascapes of Whitby, become the spaces of death:
‘The sea is tumbling over the shallows and the sandy flats with a roar, muffled in the sea mists drifting inland. The Horizon is lost in a grey mist. All is vastness, the clouds are piled up like giant rocks, and there is a “brool” over the sea that sounds like some presage of doom’
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the doomed Baron escapes his horrifying creation to the North Pole where he encounters a British Sea Captain intent on finding a passage through the frozen waters (‘which hurries me out of the common pathways of men, even to the wild sea’). On hearing the Baron’s tale he decides to turn back, convinced that the hubris of man in the face of terrifying nature can only lead to death and destruction (in a chilling foreshadowing of Captain Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition in 1912). Shelley’s husband, the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, also turned the sea gothic in his famous poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which the sailor is cursed to sail alone with the skeletons of the crew he doomed by slaying the albatross. He achieves redemption only after he learns to love the ‘slimy things’. A similar gothic and seemingly doomed journey is also undertaken by Benedict Cumberbatch (as Edmond Talbot) in the BBC’s adaptation of William Golding’s To The Ends of the Earth (2005). Seawater here takes on a sinister quality, seeping insidiously through cabin walls and under doorways performing a similar function as does blood in The Amityville Horror (1979) or The Shining (1980) as famous examples.
Indeed, it was the sea and ocean that provided the Romantics with a space of the ‘sublime’. It was depth as well as height that inspired Turner in his sea paintings, espousing Edmund Burke’s conception of the term as both plumbing the depths as well as scaling the heights: terrifying and redemptive by turns. Gothic is associated with the dark, labyrinthine subterranean spaces of castles and other spaces, and the ocean provided a similar subterranean space of nature’s own making. In Ghostboat (2006), a ghostly submarine revisits to embody the horrific past breaking through. In the 1984 Children’s Film Foundation TV film Haunters of the Deep, the Cornish tin mines beneath the Atlantic are filled with ghostly echoes of those who were trapped and killed in the pursuit of wealth.
Jonathan Miller’s 1968 Omnibus adaptation of M. R. James’ short story ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll come to you my lad’ (foreshortened to Whistle and I’ll Come to You) is often viewed as the pre-genitor of the 70s strand of BBC Ghost stories for Christmas, as the first five entries in this series were also adaptations of short Stories by M.R. James (The Stalls of Barchester, A Warning to the Curious, The Ash Tree, Lost Hearts and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas). Miller’s adaptation was filmed in North Norfolk and starred Michael Horden as an aloof Cambridge professor who finds an old Whistle near a grave in the sand dunes, which bears the inscription “who is this who is coming for you”? Having blown the whistle, Parkin is plagued in his dreams and on his daily constitutional along the seafront by a ghostly manifestation. The story was re-worked by the BBC in 2010 and starred John Hurt as the professor who is plagued by visions. On this occasion the beach is at Broadstairs, Kent, the manifestation a female form and more specifically, that of his Alzheimer’s- stricken wife whom he places into a care home before taking his seaside break. In both instances, the liminal spaces of the seaside are a place of death and terror- the incessant sound of the sea an aural backdrop to the psychological effects of the supernatural and generally a bleak and unforgiving place which treats human interlopers as unwelcome outsiders. Similarly, the 1989 ITV adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (itself influenced by the gothic landscapes of British literature, M.R. James particularly) uses the liminal and isolated coastline as an environment in which terror manifests. The haunted Eel Marsh house is accessible only by a narrow causeway which is engulfed by the sea on a daily basis. As the sea envelopes, a terrible sea ‘fret’ or fog also descends, obscuring landscapes, distorting sounds and inviting tragedy in the treacherous quicksands of the bay. It is such a tragedy which befalls Alice Drablow’s son in the drama. Forced against her mother’s will to the house, the carriage is thrown into the muds, swallowing and smothering Nathaniel and driving the eponymous woman into a consuming hatred and curse which claims the lives of the children of the village of Criffin Gifford. The tragedy is re-enacted on a daily basis with the regularity of the tide, linking the natural diurnal maritime with the horrific. The effect of horrific repetition is also apparent in the other texts in the form of dream sequences and repeated images, often involving hauntings and apparitions along the seashore. In both versions of Whistle, the beach visited the day before provides the material for nocturnal nightmares as the protagonist is chased and terrified by an unknown apparition. Similarly, in Remember Me, Hannah has recurring dreams where Isha plagues her, with the recurrent images of seashore, turbulent sea, lighthouse, drowning and the black and white tiles of Scarborough seafront. On each occasion the dream is curtailed with Isha turning her face towards the camera and a short, sharp terrifying noise (in the same manner as the Professor’s dream in the 1968 Whistle).
Figures, 1-4 From top: Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968), A Warning to the Curious(1972), The Woman in Black (1989) and Whistle and I’ll Come to you (2010).
In each instance, the central (male) protagonist is confronted, chased and terrorised by a spectral form in the liminal and desolate landscape of the beach.
A similar effect is created in A Warning to the Curious (1972) which was also filmed on the beautiful but desolate North Norfolk coast (near Happisburgh). It opens, like the original Whistle and I’ll Come to you, (the remake simply has the audio) with a long, lingering, shot of the beach. The mysterious figure of Agar appears and murders a scholar who had located the ancient crown of the Britons amongst the firs and sand dunes. A similar fate appears to await lead protagonist Mr Paxton (Peter Vaughn), an outside scholar and amateur Saxon treasure hunter who also uncovers the ancient crown on the beach. He is stalked and chased on the beach by the terrifying figure of Agar, who is an ancient protector of the crown’s resting place. In all these instances, the place of the beach takes on significance as a representational space between life and death, or as Barthes describes, ‘In- between places, where every present moment is suffused with the double past of both sides of the beach and complicated by the creative cultures that this mixture makes’. This double life is manifested by the recurrent theme of gravestones at the beach, suggesting that those souls buried there are unable to find rest: doomed to haunt the netherworld they occupy.
Figures. 5-6.The graves where the eponymous whistle is found in Whistle and I’ll Come to You, where Mr Paxton encounters Agar in A Warning to the Curious and where Arthur Kidd is startled by The Woman in Black (figure3) suggest the conflation of life and death colliding tragically in the realm of the liminal.
To return then to Remember Me, the opening also invokes the sea and shorelines as ominous. Shots of the sea, and a mysterious figure washed on the shore are inserted into the opening coda, which depicts Tom Parfitt faking an injury in order that he can escape both the house and Isha, and mixed with equally moody and gothic shots of the Yorkshire landscape. Water surrounds and penetrates and is linked to the appearance of the supernatural. Taps drip ominously or overflow. Water appears where it shouldn’t; through light fittings, dripping on a corpse on a mortician’s slab, in the lungs of a victim who died falling out of a window. Water, and more specifically seawater, signifies death and is furthermore associated with the appearance of the monstrous feminine in the form of Isha. Alongside this, the attendant unexplained manifestation of seashells inverts their association from beach holidays, childhood and frivolity to something unexplained and sinister.
The motif of monstrous female associated with the sea and perpetuating a deadly curse bears comparison both with The Woman in Black (1989) and also the Japanese Ringu films (as well as the Korean and American re-makes). The original trilogy of Japanese feature films hint at the provenance of the cursed Sadako (the vengeful spirit who climbs out of a well to kill the viewer of the cursed videotape after seven days) as the incarnation of a sea demon. Hideo Nakata’s original (1998) and sequel (Ring 2, 1999) are full of dark and malevolent images of the sea, cryptic warnings from fishermen and the cursed tape itself bears the warning ‘frolic in brine, goblins be thine’. Similarly, the American re-makes and re-imaginings, The Ring (2002) and The Ring 2 (2005) feature the re-named Samara heavily associated with the sea and numerous images of water appearing unexpectedly.
Figures 7-8. Image from the cursed videotape in Ringu (1998), which bears the legend ‘frolic in brine, goblins be thine’, and Ring 0: Birthday (2000) in which the ‘good’ and the ‘evil’ versions of the demon Sadako coalesce at the seashore before embarking on a murderous rampage.
Foucault suggests that the sea is often personified as female, particularly in western culture, as it is seen as irrational and un-tameable compared with the relative stability of the land. Both Isha and Sadako/Samara, in their irrational hatred and inability to slake their thirst to kill exemplify this. Scholars also suggest that Sadako represents the expression of a collective guilt and symbolic fear for a Japanese patriarchal past which particularly mistreated women. In this regard, Isha, being Indian, may be viewed as the expression of repressed colonial guilt: an unhappy past, which cannot be denied, and returns as a constant reminder. This is given added resonance in the context by the fact that she is so closely associated with the sea. As an island nation, Britain achieved pre-eminence principally by conquering the seas. Isha represents the loss of control of this arena of vitality, and by extension serves as a reminder of the death of a particular British way of life. Her appearance at the seaside resort of Scarborough underlines this. The seaside resort, once the symbol of leisure and frivolity for prosperous Britain, suffered a vertiginous decline, paralleled by the fatal contraction of the British Empire. The crumbling edifices and bleak and deserted seaside towns stood as a constant reminder of decline, in the spaces once so closely linked to prosperity (crime dramas like Broadchurch, 2013-15, perform a similar function in turning places of pleasure and play into places of death).
Remember Me therefore engages with a number of themes that resonate with a longer tradition of British television. These themselves echo wider cultural influences on the conception of landscapes and seascapes within Britain. The sea is haunted and dangerous, and the place where the sea meets the land is equally the place of death. In a Britain where coastal areas do not always have the happy and carefree associations they once had, where the sea is no longer a place of national prosperity, and where rising sea levels and coastal erosion highlight the vulnerability and fragility of the British Isles, the line uttered by a character regarding the appearance of Isha, “There’s always water- water that shouldn’t be there” takes on a deeper and eerie significance.
Mark Fryers is currently completing his AHRC funded PhD Thesis, Maritime Film and Television and British National Identity, 1960-2012. He has recently published a book chapter on The Onedin Lineand his research is particularly focused on the manner in which film and television constructs and disseminates notions of national and collective identity, particularly with regards to physical land and seascapes.